Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

James Gillespie Blaine, His Family, and "Romanism"

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

James Gillespie Blaine, His Family, and "Romanism"

Article excerpt

In the presidential campaign of 1884, a supporter of Republican nominee James G. Blaine, in Blaine's presence, referred to the Democratic Party as the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion" - that is, the party of drunkards, Catholics, and rebels. Blaine may not have heard the remark - he publicly repudiated it three days later - but by then the damage had been done. Angry at the infamous association with drunkards and rebels, many Catholics may have switched their allegiance to Democrat Grover Cleveland that fall, thus swinging the election against Blaine. There is strong evidence, however, that Blaine had been baptized a Catholic and, although never practicing, was thus the first baptized Catholic nominated for the presidency, forty-four years before Al Smith in 1928.

At approximately ten o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1884, Republican presidential nominee James G. Blaine, accompanied by his wife and several of his children, left his suite in New York's Fifth Avenue Hotel to descend into the lobby where a group of churchmen had assembled to greet him.1 Rev. Samuel D. Burchard, pastor of Murray Hill Presbyterian Church, had been selected to deliver their official welcome.

Each day that fall had brought Blaine closer to what he hoped would be the pinnacle of his career (see figure 1). Born in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in 1830, he had graduated from nearby Washington College at the early age of seventeen, taught school for a short time, and then moved to Augusta, Maine, in 1854 to edit the Kennebec fournal. After a brief stint in the Maine state assembly, he was sent to Washington, D.C, as a member of the House of Representatives in 1862, serving as Speaker from 1869 to 1875. He moved to the Senate in 1876; served as President James Garfield's secretary of state in 1881; and, after failing to receive his party's presidential nomination in 1876 and 1880, had finally secured that prize in the summer of 1884.2

The political differences between Blaine and his Democratic opponent that year, New York governor Grover Cleveland, were not great, and the two party platforms remained moderate and vague.3 Both candidates seemed to favor Civil Service reform, taxes and tariffs only for needed government revenue, sound money, public lands chiefly for homesteads and small holders, and opportunities for decent livelihood for all laborers.4 With few policy differences between the two candidates, the campaign had degenerated into scurrilous attacks on the candidates' characters. Blaine was accused of unsavory dealings in railroad bonds and perhaps complicity in the celebrated Credit Mobilier scandal during his years as Speaker of the House. Cleveland's reputation in public life had been unchallenged but there was a private scandal: he had apparently fathered an illegitimate child a few years before and had accepted responsibility. These differences in their public and private lives led reformer George W Curtis to remark5:

We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office, but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is so admirably fitted to adorn.

On that fateful day, it was only by chance that Rev. Burchard was called upon to welcome candidate Blaine.6 The scheduled speaker, Dr. Thomas Armitage of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church, had been delayed in Philadelphia that morning, and Burchard was a last-minute replacement. Mounting the lower steps to stand next to Blaine, he faced the assembled clergymen and offered his official greeting in their name:7

We are very happy to welcome you to this circle. You see here a representation of aU the denominations of this city. You see the large number that are represented. We are your friends, Mr. …

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